Reimagining roots

December 3, 2023

This anthology of short stories brings to life Pakistan’s diverse experiences and emotions.

Reimagining roots


arrating the experiences and feelings of individuals, cities, times or entire nations is a powerful literary tool, a tradition exemplified by anthologies such as James Joyce’s Dubliners. Just as Joyce’s collection offers intimate glimpses into the lives of Dublin’s residents, weaving together a multifaceted portrait of a city, Narrating Pakistan: An Anthology of Contemporary Creative Writing similarly brings to life Pakistan’s diverse experiences and emotions. Echoing the impact of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in its exploration of the human condition, Narrating Pakistan stands as a contemporary counterpart to Joyce’s detailed urban landscape. The anthology’s array of stories provides profound insights into the complexities of life in Pakistan, beautifully interweaving individual and collective experiences to present a rich, dynamic tapestry of a nation.

Immediately upon opening the book, its preface, written by Saeed Ur Rehman and Khadeeja Farooqui, details the self-professed “failed” process of compiling the book as well as what the book hopes to achieve. The preface’s self-awareness is entertaining and brings into light subjects of varying philosophical aptitude. The preface also allows the reader to have some idea of what is to come.

Each fictional and non-fictional narrative in the anthology builds a carefully detailed world which gives the reader a steadily increasing apprehensiveness. Oftentimes stories end seemingly abruptly. Each story builds and delivers on an aspect of Pakistan’s culture and society, from language, the theme in Dur e Aziz Amna’s Your Tongue is Still Yours; colour, illustrated by Aatif Rashid’s Brown Mirror; depression, realistically exemplified in Kanaz Javed’s It Will Follow You Home; identity, in Tehmina Khan’s The Secret Room on the Upper Floor and Amna Choudary’s Cheap Cheap Gaanay; female repression as well as societal issues, demonstrated in Hairy by Sarah Khan, Jim Redmond’s Spin the Empty Bottle, and Farah Ali’s Bulletproof Bus. The broad themes are highlighted best by the book’s synopsis: “Interweaved among the surrealistic imaginations of diaspora writers and reflections on memory, language, disease, death and belonging.”

I found each story integral to the anthology. Several have had a profound impact on me. Each narrative within this anthology contributes significantly to its depth and impact. However, certain stories stand out due to their thematic depth, narrative ingenuity and emotional resonance.

The book shatters the idea that Pakistani writers cannot be compared to the Anglo-European writers of the current or the previous century.

The statement by Thomas Babington Macaulay, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,” aimed to criticise the Orientalist methodology of reviving Eastern philosophy, has often been misinterpreted as an insult. It may have led some people to the perception that Pakistani writers can neither comprehend nor write effective literature. The editors of this anthology wholeheartedly disagree.

The anthology’s array of stories provides profound insights into the complexities of life in Pakistan, beautifully interweaving individual and collective experiences to present a rich, dynamic tapestry of a nation.

The weakness of the selection lies in the lack of representation of social minorities, like the transgender community.

Trans/Gress, by Syed Kazim Ali Kazmi, narrates the actions and thoughts of a person attempting to fly from Pakistan to Europe. The second-person narration with quick, sharp, sentences hits hard and gives rise to a claustrophobic and haphazard atmosphere, which perfectly captures the nature of the experience. The cognitive consonance is incredible.

Aamina Ahmad’s July Sun tells the poignant tale of a husband and wife, imbued with dramatic, almost nihilistic realism. The story’s verisimilitude is striking, evoking the sensation of witnessing events unfold in a neighbouring village. The author’s nuanced understanding of relationships and social dynamics lends a profound authenticity to the narrative. The story refutes certain notions about the morals and social traditions of the impoverished class. Its powerful conclusion not only draws the reader into a deep sympathy for the protagonists but also fosters a sense of empathy, inviting a closer examination of the characters’ circumstances and the societal structures that shape their lives.

The Sharpness of the Grass Blades by Saeed Ur Rehman stands out for its unconventional approach and profound impact. The story commences with a directive that challenges the reader’s expectations: “Forget about Pakistan for a while.” This narrative decision is significant as it momentarily shifts the focus away from Pakistan, the central theme of the anthology. Instead, it delves into the complex theme of nationality, as experienced by a protagonist in Newtown, Sydney, facing the imminent expiry of their visa.

The story serves as a critical exploration of the concept of nationality, a subject imbued with sensitivity and personal significance. It highlights the dichotomy between the inherent pride associated with one’s origins and the indifference some may feel towards their national identity. The narrative compellingly illustrates that nationality, often perceived as a background detail, can be a pivotal aspect of one’s identity and life choices, influencing decisions and opportunities. Its exploration resonates with philosophical viewpoints, such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously maintained a stateless existence. While Nietzsche’s philosophy often positioned him as the antithesis of patriotism, emphasising individual over national identity, The Sharpness of the Grass Blades presents a more nuanced understanding. It suggests that regardless of personal beliefs or the perceived relevance of nationality, it remains a significant and often inescapable aspect of one’s life, influencing both one’s circumstances and existential considerations.

Stories in Narrating Pakistan boldly confront a spectrum of prejudices ingrained in the society – ranging from skin colour and gender to race, identity, ideology and birthplace. Each narrative acts as a mirror, reflecting the ongoing struggle for diversity and tolerance. These stories are miniature representations of our societal landscape. The literary skill of each author is evident in their use of imagery and their control of narrative pace, which shifts frequently. This not only makes each story shine as a work of art but also demonstrates the strength of liberal and progressive thinking.


Narrating Pakistan

An Anthology of Contemporary Creative Writing

Editors: Saeed-Ur-Rehman, Khadija Farooqui

Publisher: Ilqa Publications

Pages: 247

Price: Rs 899

The reviewer is a freelance

Reimagining roots